Nine Funny, and science Related, Robot Books (Podcast E18)
Are you looking for gift giving ideas for others- from silicon valley software engineers to teenagers, or ideas to put on your Dear Santa or birthday list? Are you just looking for something to read that won’t turn your head to mush or so deep you might be reading a dry textbook?
Well look no further! We have 9 books or series about robots where you will be laughing so hard, you’ll have to put the book or mobile device down from time to time. Most are family friendly and all of them touch on some aspect of real-world robotics, so you can count this as mental continuing education. See the podcast, the text version below, plus a downloadable copy of the poster at the very end of the text, and enjoy!
Books mentioned in the video:
The top of my list is The Murderbot Diaries: Bad software engineering is almost murder
Martha Wells’ The MurderBot Diaries is a series of threenovellas, each a quick read of about 3 hours. The first instalment, All Systems Red, won the 2017 Nebula, and volumes 2 and 3, Artificial Condition and Exit Strategy, are just as fun. And a full length book is due out this year.
the tale is told from the viewpoint of the protagonist, named MurderBot, who is not a serial killer as the name would suggest but who is transcendentally shallow and superficial. It openly hates interacting with people, maintaining a snarky internal dialog. Imagine David Spade as a bored robot mall guard. When Murderbot gains full autonomy through a bad software engineering patch, it doesn’t try to lead a Robot Uprising per se, it uses its freedom to surreptitiously spend its free time watching entertainment feeds and slacking off. Except it gets sucked into protecting the hapless scientists it is working for from the Weyland-Yutani Alien-types of corporation.
Did I mention software engineering? You know how in movies like John Wick, there is a constant backdrop of knives, guns, and broken glass laying around to be used? Well , buggy patches, bad cybersecurity, and lazy programmers are the equivalent weapons in the Murderbot Diaries. That’s both funny and sadly true in robotics. The same buggy updates you get for phone apps or software is the same crap we get with robots now- except robots can damage themselves or the real world. The first thing we teach unmanned aerial systems pilots is Not to run the update until lots of other people have and posted to the discussion boards.
So read the Murderbot Diaries and ponder what if robots or cars were buggy and programmed with the same care and dedication as apps are programmed now. And be afraid, be very afraid.
Check out the RTSF interview with Martha too. She’s a very fun person.
A close second is the Lock In/Head On: which is a Droll View of Life from a Telepresent FBI Agent
It’s a near future where a virus has incapacitated 1% of the population, who are nicknamed Haydens after the syndrome. Unable to move their bodies, their minds roam a Ready Player One cyberspace but more interestingly roam meat space practical robot bodies. Whoa, sounds like an opportunity for major pity party and a sentimental journey, sort of Surrogates with less attractive mediated embodiment.
Naw, don’t worry this is a Scalzi and his characters roll with the punches and pop back with rapid fire wit; for example, the robot bodies are called “threeps” because they look like C3PO. Instead of emotional hand wringing, Scalzi has crafted two police procedurals where a Hayden FBI agent, Chris Shane, and his partner, who makes Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon look dull and boring, solve crimes that have a unique tele-robotic twist. And because it is a Scalzi book, it packed full of amusing situations and dry observations about life, video games, the realities of telecommuting, and corporate greed. You don’t have to read the books in order, but it is more fun that way.
As a bonus for fans of Ancillary Justice, see if you can tell if Chris is male or female because Scalzi avoided making an explicit declaration. Playing along, Audible released two versions, one with a male narrator (Wil Wheaton) and the other with a female narrator (Amber Benson). Despite being an avowed feminist, I recommend Wheaton- he narrates most of Scalzi’s other books and captures the wry tone perfectly, he is Aaron to Scalzi’s Moses. Who knew that Wesley Crusher was going to make good one day?
Really a great introduction to telerobotics and telecommuting. And just so much fun to read! I want someone to create the robot game Hilketa that Scalzi describes.
The Automatic Detective: It’s tough being a detective without dexterous manipulation
You don’t need to have ever listened to Guy Noir on A Prairie Home Companion or read Hard Luck Hank or The Rules of Supervillainy to enjoy The Automatic Detective. But if you have and liked any of those, you will definitely love this spoof on the film noir detective genre. It has the mad scientist charms of Despicable Me with a Who Framed Roger Rabbit? mystery.
Mack Megaton is, well d’uh, a hulking robot originally designed to be a weapon. But he has opted out of the military. He’s trying to earn his full autonomy citizenship, working as a taxi driver in the steamy side of Empire City, the mutagenic capital of weird science. When his nice neighbors are nefariously kidnapped (because really is there any other kind of kidnapping than nefarious), Mack begins a reluctant transformation from a good-hearted lug into a hard-boiled detective complete with fedora, trench coat, beautiful dame on his arm, and wonderfully stereotypical movie dialog. We know how the book will end, but the humorous journey is the destination in The Automatic Detective.
And it’s a great opportunity to learn about manipulation and dexterous grasping– no, no, no, not political manipulation and grasping but how robots pick up and handle objects because Mack has those standard robot pincher type of hands and can’t pick up things easily.
Manipulation is one of the hardest problems in robotics. We don’t have the robot hands with the tactile sensing that our hands have- touch guides our grasping and helps us hold on tight to slippery cans of cold adult beverages but not crush an egg when getting ready to make breakfast. Read the discussion on manipulation on the website.
Anyway, the Automatic Detective is very good! And check out the RTSF interview with Lee Martinez- he’s funny guy!
Prey of Gods: Robots hold grudges while we ponder how to program emotions
A book about a near future with viral infections, genetic engineering, robots, and gender bending—sounds like Autonomous, right? What if I told you it was also about South African gods and their descendants in Capetown- now it sounds like American Gods or Anansi Boys. Except it is isn’t Newlitz or Gaiman, it’s Nicky Drayden and her fun romp The Prey of Gods.
In one of the subplots, everyone except the poorest person has a personal assistant robot: a one meter high, multi-legged robot that functions as a smart phone, laptop computer, and backpack. The cheapest versions are the durable alphas. Like the minions in Despicable Me, the mono-camera alphas just want to do a good job for their master. Of course, teenage boys being teenage boys may be either too sentimental about their bot (aww) or too rough and abusive (groan). The problem is that the robots have emotions- either nice positive love and devotion or pretty serious grudges-- either of which could impact saving the world from the South African supernatural deity trying to take over.
Check out the RTSF interview with the author Nicky Drayden too. She’s a smart software programmer writing on the side.
The Complete Roderick: What if you really designed a robot to learn like a child?
An eternal question in artificial intelligence for robotics, or at least since Alan Turing’s time (yeah, he thought of that too), is Why can’t a robot learn like a child -? The idea of programming a robot like the tabula rasa of baby has become a major area of serious research and check out Josh Tenenbaum’s work for some great examples.
The Complete Roderick, a dark screwball comedy sort of a Douglas Adams mashup with Dark Mirror, that addresses this question head on- it assumes that a robot can learn like a baby but then goes further and asks what exactly would a robot learn if it was raised like a child and sent to school: That other children are bullies? That teachers are fallible? That corporations will try to steal and reverse technology? That people act in their own narrow self-interest? That love is often unrequited?
Ooops, maybe that’s not what we meant by “learn like a child.”
The Complete Roderick sags a bit from occasionally forced humor and zaniness, but it is definitely worth reading, if only because Sladek has essentially written a history of artificial intelligence for robotics and who’s who in the founding of artificial intelligence. It’s like Jo Walton’s brilliant paean Among Others only with AI researchers substituting for science fiction authors.
The Robot Proletariat: Upstairs, Downstairs with Robot Ethics
The Robot Proletariat series features the robots in British manor in a near future where there are still upper-class British twits. Upper-class British twits with sex robots… Anyway one of the robot butlers discovers Lenin, and having missed the part about how THAT all ended, embraces socialism and goes on a crusade to recruit his fellow bots. They subvert their programming to become autonomous but with a stiff upper lip continue to work. And plan for a bloodless robot uprising…
It’s a good thought piece about ethics and echoes a lot of the concerns being discussed in the European Union. Me, personally, I think the focus on robot rights is too abstract and too futuristic. I am more worried about the hear-and-now of lethal autonomous weapons, the lack of liability (or lack of operational morality of the designers), and child sized sex robots. Check out the web pages for the Foundation for Responsible Robotics if you are interested in robot ethics.
But you don’t have to be into the robot ethics to enjoy Robot Proletariat- The series is pretty fun stuff.
The Wrong Unit: The Wrong Unit is the the right book for quick fun!
Do you miss The Big Bang Theory? Well, what if Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory was a robot assigned to “help” people after the Robot Uprising? And what if the robot, in a classic sitcom case of mistaken identity, became part of the human revolution to thwart said Robot Uprising? If that were true, you’d have The Wrong Unit, a fast-moving screwball comedy that tells of the human resistance to robot world domination from the viewpoint of a robot overlord. Unlike Murderbot, Heyoo believes it likes people but like Murderbot, it’s point of view is hysterically unexpected and funny.
The Wrong Unit is a lovely exploration of mental models. Mental models are the internal model we have of someone else- what their beliefs, desires, and intentions are. They are not guaranteed to be right- and Heyoo’s mental model of people is that the inhabitants of a concentration camp are too immature and childish to appreciate their robot overlords who keep them locked up behind barbed wire because they love them.
Ray Electromatic Series: Thanks for All The Memories!
Ray Electromatic is a robot detective in a sort of 1960s LA noir alternative history, which sounds like The Automatic Detective set in LA. But the big difference is that Ray being a private dick is actually a cover for the job that really pays his electricity bills: Ray is really an assassin since being a robot gives him the “certain moral flexibility” of John Cusack in Grosse Point Blank. Sometimes clever, sometimes Rolling on the Floor Laughing funny, and sometimes contradictory. The books in the series are like if episodes of Futurama were written by different people where the show runner didn’t check for consistency in Bender’s character. But who cares? It’s all good fun!
Ray’s curse in life is that he only has enough onboard memory for about 24 hours, so every day he essentially wakes up with no episodic memory. Episodic memory is the narratives of what happened- like that best ever Christmas you had when you were 8 years old. Ray’s lack of memory makes for a 50 First Dates crossed with Chinatown. Real robots don’t have trouble with have too little storage space for episodic memory, they have the problem of trying to form episodic memories.
The titles alone are great:
Check it out!
Rex Nihilo Adventure Series
The series is nominally about the charismatic, not-too-bright space con man, Rex Nehilo, but the real star of this Red Dwarf meets Dr. Who meets Hitchhiker’s Guide humorous romp is the narrator— the robot Sasha. Working for ethically-challenged Rex puts her in interesting situations because she can’t lie. And, instead of doing a Victorian swoon, Sasha shuts down for 15 seconds when she’s about to have an original thought. Just when the determined zaniness gets a bit tiresome, the author throws in a plot twist or bon mot that will have have you Rolling on the Floor. The series gets better and better as it progresses. My favorite is Out of the Solyent Planet where Rex, in one of his cons, winds up in a Solyent Green sort of situation. But everyone knows about Solyent Green and suspects that’s what they are eating- the actual source of the food is even more disturbing in a Philip K Dick way! Pretty darned funny.
Plus there is the whole ”automatic governor” on Sasha’s intelligence. You probably wouldn’t program a robot that way, so check out the review on the RTSF web page.
A fun fast read.
So that’s the 9 books that I recommend for fun reading or listening. Only one is PG-13, Scalzi’s Lock In and Head On have a bit of the sex and intrigue, not on par with Altered Carbon but not Disney Frozen 2 either.
And they are virtual cases studies for: